Growing up I heard on numerous occasions that in order for the Gentiles (that is, non-Jews) to be allowed to become Christians the Jews first had to reject the offer of Christianity. The story goes something like this – Jesus died and rose again. The offer of salvation through Christ came first for the Jews. God got fed up when the Jews rejected Christ and so he finally offered salvation to the Gentiles. You may have heard a different version but that is what I have heard people say. I mentioned this in our Romans class last night and several in the class were familiar with this and agreed with this storyline so I am not just making things up here. This line of thinking really is out there. Here is how Jacob Jervell lays out this supposed story of why the Gospel was offered to the Gentiles:
“Luke describes the rejection of the Christian proclamation on the part of the Jewish people. Only after and because Israel has rejected the gospel, and for that reason has itself been rejected, do the missionaries turn to Gentiles. Because of the behavior of Israel, the Gentiles mission was set free, so that precisely the Jewish rejection of the missionary message proved to be the decisive presupposition for the Gentile mission.” (Luke and the People of God, 41).
I am indebted to Jervell for helping open my eyes to the fact that such a story line is problematic. There are components of Acts that lend itself to this theory – the fact that the apostles would first go to a synagogue to speak to the Jews in a city before going to the Gentiles. One example is in Acts 13 where Paul and Barnabas go to Pisidian Antioch and preach in the synagogue. In 13:44-45 some of the Jews are jealous of Paul and Barnabas and so they mistreated and rejected Paul and his message. Paul’s response to them? “We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. For this is what the Lord has commanded us: ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’ When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord…But the Jewish leaders incited the God-fearing women of high standing and the leading men of the city. They stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas and expelled them from their region.” That seems to confirm the theory that the Jews had to reject to open the way for the Gentiles…right?
We have a real difficulty in our interpretation to take one example and say this is the theology of the day. By that principle we could also say that people can and should receive the Holy Spirit prior to baptism based on what happened to Cornelius in Acts 10…but we know better because we understand the context of what God was doing in the Cornelius example. Just because the Jews reject Paul here and then he goes to the Gentiles does not mean that was God’s design to open the door to the Gentiles. In fact, when you really read this passage Paul is saying just the opposite. He cites Isaiah 49:6 to remind them that they are violating God’s intention of them being a light to the Gentiles. Isaiah 49 says God wanted his people to be an open door to the Gentiles because they were accepting God’s plan and not because they were rejecting it. Paul is condemning these Jewish leaders for letting their own pride get in the way of God’s actual intention – that the Jews would accept Christ and open the way for the Gentiles. Notice also that when Paul is preaching to them he is preaching to Jews and Greeks (13:16, 26)
Pair that with the stories of mass conversions in the book of Acts and tell me how you can conclude that the Jews wholesale rejected Jesus? (Thanks to Jervell, 44 for compiling several of these verses)
- Acts 2:41, 47 – 3,000 Jews believe in Christ and are baptized
- Acts 4:4 – 2,000 more Jews believe in Jesus
- Acts 5:14 – “more and more believed”
- 6:1,7 – The number of disciples was increasing at this time
- 9:42 – Many more believed in the Lord
- 12:24 – The word of the Lord continued to spread
- 13:43 – many Jews listened to the Gospel and continued in the grace of God
- 14:1 – great number of Jews and Greeks believed
- 17:4, 12 – Some Jews followed Paul as well as many Greeks
- 19:20 – the word of the Lord spread widely
- 21:20 – “many thousands of Jews have believed”
Wholesale rejection? Sure some rejected as all are open to make decisions based on freewill but the evidence in Acts hardly supports a Jewish rejection that opened the door to the Gentiles. Again, the opposite was God’s plan – that his people would be a light to the Gentiles. Hard to be a light if you are rejecting the message God wants them to believe. Then consider Galatians 3:14 – “He redeemed us (Jews) in order that the blessings given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.” Paul says the Jews were redeemed (not that they rejected) so that the Gentiles might be blessed and come to faith in Christ Jesus (for a fuller treatment of Galatians 3 see this post). I don’t know how much more evidence we need that God’s plan (and indeed, what actually happened) was for the Jews to accept Christ first and then the Gentiles would get a chance to be reached with the Gospel. Jesus even spoke in John 10 of two groups of sheep who would hear his voice and listen – first the Jews and then the Gentiles (John 10:1-18).
I am sure many of you will disagree with me and I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Hopefully this has been as eye opening for you as it has for me.